It’s That Time Of Year: Beatlemania Hits Northeast Arkansas

by Michael Wilkey ([email protected]) 142 views 

The Fab Four from Liverpool – who made a trip through Northeast Arkansas more than 50 years ago – were big fans of the music from the region, an author of a new book about The Beatles said Thursday.

Ivor Davis, who wrote the book, “The Beatles and Me on Tour,” will visit Walnut Ridge Friday and Saturday as part of the Beatles at the Ridge Festival.

The Beatles band – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison – flew into Walnut Ridge on September 18, 1964 on their way to a dude ranch in Alton, Mo., for a short vacation. Davis said the group flew in late at night, then headed to Missouri after being on the road for five grueling weeks and to celebrate the birthday of their manager, Brian Epstein. After a few days of vacation, the group drove back to Walnut Ridge to fly back out.

By the time the rock and roll band returned to Walnut Ridge from the ranch, word had spread of their trip into Arkansas and a small crowd assembled to take pictures and swoon.

As Jonesboro’s next door neighbor, Walnut Ridge has made efforts to capitalize on the Beatles connection in recent years. City leaders and local businessmen see an opportunity to carve out a tourism niche.

As a matter of fact, a carving is part of the attraction as a replica of the iconic Abbey Road cover is available for guests to pose near. Businessman and now Mayor of Walnut Ridge, Charles Snapp, cleared away two downtown buildings to create a pocket park that is home to the $30,000 Beatles sculpture.

The festival has hosted a concert with the Liverpool Legends, a Beatles cover band managed by George Harrison’s sister. In September 2011, nearly 5,000 fans turned out in Walnut Ridge to cheer them on despite horrendous weather.

The park and the sculpture are just two parts of a bigger vision. The city renamed the entrance road to the park Abbey Lane and it sports a similar image of the legendary album cover. An arts and crafts store named after John Lennon’s hit “Imagine” has also opened.

Walnut Ridge sits along Highway 67, which the state legislature renamed “The Rock-and-Roll” highway several years ago in order to highlight the music legends who once toured and traveled the fabled road. Honky-tonks and small venues were the musical locales where folks like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis cut their teeth.

Davis, who worked as a reporter for the London Daily Express at the time of the 1964 tour, said the group did not get a chance to see American cities while on tour.

“I know Ringo said Walnut Ridge was the type of town they wanted to see,” Davis said.

Despite the group’s British ties, Davis said the group was heavily influenced by American music. Lennon, who was shot to death in 1980 by Mark David Chapman, was a big fan of Elvis Presley.

“He would stay up and listen to Elvis on a station from Europe,” Davis said, noting Heartbreak Hotel and Blue Suede Shoes were his favorites.

McCartney is a big fan of Memphis and Nashville music, especially Sun Records, Davis said.

“The Beatles knew their history and were impressed. … He (McCartney) would say, ‘What will we be able to give them? They have everything here’,” Davis said.

The 1964 tour was hectic as the British sensations stormed the U.S. to sell-out crowds and frenetic fans. Just months before the tour kicked off, the group appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964. Davis said Epstein had worked for some time to get the Beatles on the show, which was watched by 75 million people.

“The Ed Sullivan impact was that it was the passport to Beatlemania,” Davis said.

One of the big regrets of the 1964 tour was that the Beatles did not get to perform in Memphis, then home to the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley.

“In 1964, the Beatles and Elvis never got together. It was a shame that they did not put two and two together,” Davis said, noting that Walnut Ridge and Memphis are just an hour apart.

However, the Beatles did get an opportunity to meet Elvis Presley in 1965. The top secret meeting in Los Angeles had a couple of provisions: no cameras or recording devices were allowed.

Davis, who was at the meeting, said it was awkward at first with five of the major recording artists in the 1950s and 1960s in the same room together. After some talking and Elvis telling everyone he was about to go to bed, the ice was finally broken with an impromptu jam session, Davis said.

“They hit it off,” Davis added, noting the Beatles and Elvis talked a lot about flying.

The two surviving members – McCartney and Starr – are still playing music. Davis said he saw McCartney perform a three-hour concert last year in Los Angeles, while he also plans to see Starr in concert later this month.

Davis, who toured Graceland Thursday, said he is looking forward to visiting Walnut Ridge and participating in the Beatles at the Ridge Festival.

The town has hosted the festival for several years with music groups, car shows, author interviews and other events planned. On Friday, there will be an unveiling in Walnut Ridge of a new postage stamp honoring Presley. You can view the full schedule of weekend events here.

Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp has been a driving force behind the festival and its success and Davis said he is due a lot of gratitude.

“I want to thank Walnut Ridge. It is a great festival and an example of American entrepreneurship,” Davis said.